SpaceX static fires Falcon 9 with satellites on board for the first time in years

SpaceX has successfully completed a Falcon 9 static fire ahead of Starlink’s first dedicated launch, breaking a practice that dates back to Falcon 9’s last catastrophic failure to date.

That failure occurred in September 2016 around nine minutes before a planned Falcon 9 static fire test, completely destroying the rocket and the Amos-6 communications satellite payload and severely damaging Launch Complex 40 (LC-40). Since that fateful failure, all 42 subsequent Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy satellite launches have been preceded by static fire tests without a payload fairing attached. This process typically adds 24-48 hours of work to launch operations, an admittedly tiny price to pay to reduce the chances of a rocket failure completely destroying valuable payloads. With Starlink v0.9, SpaceX is making different choices.

When supercool liquid oxygen ruptured a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) in Falcon 9’s upper stage, the resultant explosion and fire destroyed Falcon 9. Perhaps more importantly, the ~$200M Amos-6 satellite installed atop the rocket effectively ceased to exist, a loss that posed a serious threat to the livelihood of its owner, Spacecom. Posed with a question of whether saving a day or two of schedule was worth the potential destruction of customer payloads, both customers, SpaceX, and their insurers obviously concluded that static fires should be done without payloads aboard the rocket.

The only exceptions since Amos-6 are the launch debuts of Falcon Heavy – with a payload that was effectively disposable and SpaceX-built – and Crew Dragon DM-1, in which Falcon 9’s integration with Dragon’s launch abort system had to be tested as part of the static fire. Every other SpaceX rocket launch since September 2016 has excluded payloads during each routine pre-flight static fire.

Falcon Heavy ignites all 27 Merlin 1D engines for the first time ahead of its inaugural launch, January 2018. (SpaceX)
SpaceX completed a successful static fire of the first Falcon 9 rated for human flight on January 24th, 2019. (SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Spacecraft Emporium

Why the change of pace on this launch, then? The answer is simple: for the first time ever, SpaceX is both the sole payload/satellite stakeholder and launch provider, meaning that nearly all of the mission’s risk – and the consequences of failure – rest solely on SpaceX’s shoulders. In other words, SpaceX built and owns the Falcon 9 assigned to the mission, the 60 Starlink test satellites that make up its payload, and the launch complex supporting the mission.

Even then, if Falcon 9 were to fail during an internal SpaceX mission, customer launches could be seriously delayed by both the subsequent failure investigation failure and any potential damage to the launch complex. In short, although an internal mission does offer SpaceX some unique freedoms, it is still in the company’s best interest to treat the launch like any other, even if some customer-oriented corners are likely begging to be cut. Additionally, the loss of SpaceX’s first dedicated payload of 60 Starlink satellites could be a significant setback for the constellation, although it may be less significant than most would assume.

The same pad will host GovSat-1 in just over 24 hours.
A December 2017 panorama of SpaceX’s LC-40 facilities, CRS-13’s Cargo Dragon and Falcon 9. (Tom Cross/Teslarati)

This is not to say that SpaceX won’t take advantage of some of the newfound freedom permitted by Starlink launches. In fact, CEO Elon Musk has stated that one of SpaceX’s 2019 Starlink missions will become the first to reuse a Falcon fairing. Additionally, SpaceX is free to do things that customers might be opposed to but that the company’s own engineers believe to be low-risk. Notably, Starlink missions will be an almost perfect opportunity for SpaceX to flight-prove reusability milestones without having to ask customers to tread outside of their comfort zones.

The sheer scale of SpaceX proposed Starlink constellation – two phases of ~4400 and ~12,000 satellites – means that the company will need all the latent launch capacity it can get over the next 5-10 years, at least until Starship/Super Heavy is able to support internal missions. Extraordinary packing density will help to minimize the number of launches needed, but the fact remains that even an absurd 120 satellites per launch (double Starlink v0.9’s 60) would still require an average of 12 launches per year to finish Starlink before 2030.

One of the first two prototype Starlink satellites separates from Falcon 9’s upper stage in February 2018. (SpaceX)
OneWeb deployed six development satellites in February 2019, the company’s first hardware to reach orbit. (Arianespace)

In the meantime, thoughts of a dozen or more annual Starlink launches are somewhat premature. SpaceX’s first dedicated Starlink launch (deemed Starlink v0.9) is scheduled to lift off no earlier than 10:30 pm EDT (02:30 UTC), May 15th, and is being treated as an advanced but still intermediary step between the Tintin prototypes and a finalized spacecraft design. Still, in an unprecedented step, SpaceX has built sixty Starlink satellites for the development-focused mission, in stark contrast to the six satellites (still a respectable achievement) competitor OneWeb launched in February 2019 as part of its own flight-test program.

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